Authors: Christine Pope
A small moan escaped Miala’s lips. Once she had let it out, she wished beyond anything that she could take it back, but the sensations rushing over her now were too strong, too unlike anything she had ever felt before.
“Better?” Thorn asked, again with that quirk at the corner of his mouth. He paused, but kept his hands placed firmly against the small of her back.
A wave of fury rushed over her then, and she opened her mouth to fling back some sarcastic retort, some insult,
—but he was too fast for her. Before a word could escape her lips, his mouth was on hers, and he pulled her against him, holding her so tightly there was no hope of escape. There was nothing except the feel of his mouth touching her mouth, the sensation of his body pressed up against hers, the strange roaring in her ears as she realized what was happening.
It wasn’t her first kiss. No, she had given that up years ago, as so many other girls in Aldis Nova had—out near the lean-to behind Alt the mechanic’s shop in a place that afforded shelter both from prying eyes and the glare of Iradia’s sun. The boy had been in her class and had been called Drix, and that was all she remembered of him. At any rate, that kiss compared to this one roughly the same way Thorn’s small ship compared to a Quasar-class troop ship. Drix, she recalled, hadn’t seem to know what he was doing at all, whereas Eryk Thorn obviously did. He seemed to fill her universe, the taste of him, the clean smell of his sweat, the slight rasp of his unshaven cheek against her skin, and she knew she was lost. She could no more tear herself from his grasp than a starship could free itself from the gravitational pull of a black hole.
Finally, though, he lifted his mouth from hers, although he still held her closely, as if he were afraid she would turn and bolt if he let her go completely. He watched her, even as she stared back up at him, into those dark eyes that seemed black as the depths of space, the thin-lipped mouth that just seconds ago had been pressed so firmly against hers.
Miala took a breath, then another. It required a conscious effort, as if somehow the autonomous systems regulating her heartbeat and breathing had somehow been disrupted by that kiss.
“I’ve been wanting to do that for a while,” Thorn said at last.
Again she could feel her face flush, but Miala also was strangely triumphant. Eryk Thorn had wanted to kiss
, of all people. She wondered what sort of exotic women he had known across the galaxy, then clamped down on that thought. His past didn’t matter. What mattered was that he had wanted her, here and now.
“So have I,” she whispered, and he smiled.
“I could tell,” he replied.
So much for all her feeble attempts at trying to conceal her feelings. Still, what did it matter now? He had wanted the same thing, after all.
She held herself in the encircling strength of his arms, feeling the slow rise and fall of his chest against hers. How odd that he should seem so calm, while her own heart pounded against her ribcage and each breath felt shaky and jagged.
He watched her for a few seconds, and then she could see him bending down to kiss her once again. She raised her lips to his, waiting for that electric moment when they touched.
It never came. Instead Miala heard the familiar shrilling of the perimeter alarm, and Thorn stepped away from her immediately.
“Darlester,” he said, “has impeccable timing...”
Thorn turned immediately and began moving toward the steps while Miala hurried after him, still not completely comprehending. “How do you know it’s Darlester?”
“I don’t. But it seems like his style. Probably took him a few days to gather all the necessary reinforcements.”
They both ran up the stairs, Miala trailing in Eryk Thorn’s purposeful wake. She knew where he was heading, of course—back to the security station. How unfair that Rafe Darlester—or whoever the new intruders turned out to be—should show up when she and Thorn were so close to loading all the treasure and getting off Iradia forever.
And when you were so close to getting kissed again
, she thought, but she refused to dwell on that. There was a time and a place for everything, after all, and this definitely was not the time to be thinking of anything quite so frivolous—even though she fancied she could still feel the touch of his lips against hers, the pressure of his hands against her back.
But once they entered the security station, the main viewscreen did show the same ore-processor-on-steroids vehicle Miala had seen the other night, although it looked odd in the harsh sunlight, its dark sides gleaming with a peculiar oily shine. The light on the comm station was blinking, indicating an incoming transmission.
Thorn went straight to the comm, although Miala noticed he was careful to toggle the switch that changed the outgoing signal to audio only before he allowed the message to come up on-screen.
Immediately the viewscreen filled with the not-altogether-pleasant image of Rafe Darlester, who sat in a large command chair that was flanked by a pair of well-muscled goons, both human, although the one on the right had the broadest shoulders she had ever seen, and she guessed he had been dipping into some black-market steroids. Darlester had fixed what he apparently thought was a pleasant smile on his face, although the impression was spoiled somewhat by a pair of platinum-capped incisors. He leaned toward the viewer slightly and said, “Greetings, defenders of Mast’s holdings! I feel that perhaps we got off on the wrong foot the other evening—may I know whom I have the honor of addressing?”
Miala raised her eyebrows at Thorn, who shook his head slightly even as he gave her a brief, tight grin. Did this Darlester person think he was speaking to members of the Consortium Council or something?
“That information is not necessary for our conversation,” Eryk Thorn said, after a pause. “What do you want, Darlester?”
The smuggler’s pouchy eyes tightened briefly before he replied, “I fear you have me at a disadvantage, sir. You have my name, but I don’t have yours. In addition, you keep your face from me. I would not call this a promising prelude to negotiations.”
Smoothly, Thorn said, “Call me a lieutenant to Mast, if you must.”
“Then perhaps you should consider giving yourself a battlefield promotion, considering that your master is now scattered in a thousand pieces across the Arkellian wastes.” Again Darlester leaned toward the viewer. He did not improve on close-up. “And judging by the amount of other body parts we found near the Malverdine Cliffs, it appears that most, if not all, of Mast’s coterie perished with him. Were you planning on defending the compound alone...indefinitely?”
“Only until I got rid of you,” Thorn returned, and Miala couldn’t help but smile. She got the feeling that Eryk Thorn ate guys like Rafe Darlester for breakfast.
Darlester’s platinum-accented smile grew a little tight around the edges. Still, his voice was smooth enough as he replied, “You may find that a little more difficult this time around. And after all, I’m only trying to reclaim what’s mine.”
“What’s yours?” Thorn echoed.
“A rather large shipment of silk, which Mast stole from my warehouses. You understand—I’m just a legitimate businessman trying to make my way in the galaxy. It’s difficult when the competition steals your product.”
“So you came in here, guns blazing, all to recover a stolen silk shipment.” Thorn’s tone was neutral, but somehow he managed to convey a wealth of skepticism in that very blandness.
“One can never be too careful,” Darlester replied, settling back into his oversized chair. The goons to either side of him crossed their arms, and Miala watched, fascinated, at the display of rippling muscle this action precipitated.
“So if I return this missing silk, we can call it even?”
Darlester smiled then, a smile as oily and unpleasant as the finish on his oversized ore processor. “Not quite. You see, I incurred significant damages the other evening—loss of personnel, repairs to my vehicle, that sort of thing. I expect to be compensated.”
“I would call those justifiable damages, considering you attacked the compound first.”
The smuggler didn’t even blink. “Not at all. We were forced to open fire after your perimeter defenses launched the first salvo.”
Despite her distaste for the man, Miala had to respect his sheer audacity. She knew for a fact that the defense system was just that—once the security wards were set off, the compound’s shields were immediately raised. She and Thorn hadn’t gone on the offensive until Darlester’s ground troops had begun to assault the front gates. After that—well, Darlester was right about one thing. Thorn had decimated a significant number of personnel that night.
“Interesting,” Thorn replied, “since my records show that I didn’t begin firing until your troops attacked the place.”
Darlester waved a hand. “Semantics. At any rate, I calculate that approximately sixty percent of the contents of Mast’s vaults should take care of your debt.”
“That a fact?”
The smuggler allowed himself a smile. “Yes.”
Miala had been watching Eryk Thorn carefully during this exchange, and his expression had never changed throughout. Now, however, he frowned slightly, then rubbed one finger over his chin, as if considering some possible action. He glanced away from the viewscreen, gave Miala a thoughtful look, then nodded to himself even as he hit the “mute” button on the comm.
“Think you can handle this guy for a few minutes?” he asked.
Appalled, Miala looked over at the viewscreen, at the smugly complacent features of Rafe Darlester. It was definitely the face of a man who was used to getting what he wanted. Did Thorn really think she could deal with Darlester without getting the two of them into even more trouble? Still, she knew she couldn’t let her companion down. Obviously he had thought of something, but he needed her to keep Darlester occupied while he slipped away.
“What do you need me to do?” she asked.
“Just keep him talking. Pretend you’re my assistant. Act like we’re going along with his demands.” Thorn gave her a quick glance. “Take your hair out of that braid.”
“What?” Miala looked up at him, wondering whether he had finally begun to lose his stranglehold on sanity. “What the hell difference does that make?”
“Rafe Darlester likes a pretty girl. As soon as I’m out of this room, I want you to put the comm on visual. But you should let your hair down.”
She glared at him even as she reached up to pull away the bit of string that bound the end of her braid. Typical that he would think to distract Rafe Darlester that way, instead of employing her to man the cannons or perform some other infinitely more exciting task. Instead he wanted her to play secretary! She decided it wasn’t worth arguing over, however, and shook the loose ends of her long red hair over her shoulders.
“All right?” she demanded.
“Much better,” he agreed, and for a second she could see his gaze moving over the unbound lengths of her hair. Then he fixed her eyes with his, all business once more. “Just keep him talking. Agree to anything—act as if you’re looking up information on the computer. Flirt if you have to.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said flatly, looking over her shoulder toward the impatient visage of Rafe Darlester on the viewscreen.
Thorn didn’t bother to reply, instead giving her a small handheld. “When I give the signal, drop the rear shields.”
“What are you going to do?”
“You’ll see.” And with that cryptic remark he left the room.
Miala sighed and approached the comm, then toggled the switch to activate the video feed on her end. “Um...Mister Darlester?”
The smuggler, who had been clearing his throat in an ostentatious manner and was obviously annoyed at being left hanging for so long, straightened up in his chair. His expression of petulant irritation slowly transformed into a small leer as he focused on her features. “And who might you be?”
“My name is Miala.” The second after she said the words she realized that perhaps handing him her real name hadn’t been the wisest thing to do. Still, there was nothing she could do about it now. “I’m told I need to assist you with reparations?”
He watched her for a moment, apparently thinking over her sudden appearance. “Where’s your boss?”
, Miala thought.
How do I keep getting into these messes?
But she managed to arrange what she hoped was a pleasant smile on her face and replied, “Checking your inventory, sir.”
He lifted a bushy eyebrow, then nodded slowly.
Not allowing herself to give a relieved sigh, Miala turned to the computer and began pulling up the inventory lists of the vault contents. It seemed a better idea for her to appear as legitimate as possible, and at any rate she was sure that Darlester couldn’t see the contents of the screen before her. Surely Mast had to have been storing silk down there along with everything else, although she and Eryk Thorn had not found any in the first two vaults they emptied.
Hoping she had the appropriate expression of helpful concern fixed on her features, Miala ticked her way through the inventory lists. She even went so far as to slide a finger over the computer screen as she went along, so Rafe Darlester could see how industrious she was being in restoring his stolen goods.
After a few moments, she thought she had located the items in question. “Aha!” she exclaimed, and then smiled winningly at the smuggler. “I think I’ve found it, sir. Forty-five cases of moon-moth silk?”
“Forty—” Darlester began to splutter, then cleared his throat and smiled...a fat, greedy smile. “That sounds about right.”
Miala was fairly certain what had been stolen from him wasn’t even half that number—just one case constituted a fortune, let alone forty-five—but if it kept him happy and unaware of whatever Eryk Thorn might be up to...
“And then, sir,” she went on, trying to recall the brisk yet formal way Captain Malick’s underlings had reported to him, and hoping that sort of delivery made her sound more efficient, “there is the matter of the damage to your vehicle?”